“By choice they made themselves immune”

6 January 2009

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A young girl from the al-Daya family is dug out of the rubble after her family’s four-story home was destroyed by an Israeli air strike on 6 January. (Mohamed Al-Zanon/MaanImages)


Israel has killed and injured almost 4,000 men, women and children so far in its assault on Gaza; it has entombed whole families together in the ruins of their homes. As I write, news is breaking that Israeli bombs have killed at least 40 civilians huddling in a UN school which they mistakenly thought would be safer than the homes from which Israel’s relentless barrage — and its deliberately terrorizing “warning” leaflets and prerecorded phone calls — had already driven them. (I still have one of the leaflets the Israelis dropped on besieged Beirut in 1982 and the language is exactly the same — “flee, flee for your lives!”). Mosques, schools, houses, apartment buildings, have all been brought down on the heads of those inside.

All this death and destruction comes supposedly in retaliation for rocket attacks that had not inflicted a single fatality inside Israel in over a year. What happened to “an eye for an eye?”

As horrific as the toll of dead and injured already is, the scale of Israel’s bombing, and its targeting of ambulances and medical and rescue crews — several doctors and paramedics have been killed or wounded so far — means that the true totals are actually unknown. Countless numbers of victims have bled to death in the streets or in the ruins of their smashed homes. Calls for help aren’t getting through Gaza’s phone networks, battered to pieces along with the rest of the civilian infrastructure — its water, sewage, electricity systems, all already crumbling as a result of the years of siege. The victims that are evacuated — as often, these days, in civilian cars as in the remaining ambulances — make it to hospitals that are overwhelmed; many will die that might have otherwise been saved.

Any hospital would be overwhelmed under the circumstances: how then for a hospital that has already been cut off by the 19-month-old Israeli blockade of Gaza from urgently needed supplies, medicines, drugs, anesthetics, spare parts, fuel for generators? In fact, the true story of what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza is to be seen in the besieged territory’s hospitals: the smashed, burned, dusty bodies of children being carried in on makeshift blankets (there aren’t enough stretchers to go around); the morgue drawers full of bodies; the emergency rooms with badly hurt, crying people scattered on stretchers, on beds, on the blood-washed floors, as the doctors run from one to another trying to figure out who can be saved and who must be attended to first — the boy with his feet blown off? The old woman with the huge gash in her head? The young man with his guts hanging out of his stomach? The anguished little girl thrashing about in pain, in fear, in agony and begging for her mother who vanished in some monstrous explosion? And outside, on the crowded sidewalks, the other side of the human suffering that Israel has chosen to inflict on an entire population: the wailing mothers, fathers and children; the weeping young men; the panicked people rushing around trying to find loved ones after each new Israeli bombing.

All this to make Israelis feel secure? What security is this kind of barbarism ever likely to gain them?

These are the scenes that every Palestinian and every Arab around the world sees every single day on the uncensored, unedited, unfiltered and relentlessly, brutally honest coverage broadcast on the Arabic Al-Jazeera channel. Unlike the US and UK networks, Al-Jazeera has correspondents and camera crews all over Gaza; they are Arabs, some of them are Palestinians, and they all live among the people whose suffering they record for the whole world to see; they can communicate with them in their own language and in the language of the audience as well. The coverage is continuous 24 hours a day.

Ordinary people around the rest of the world are seeing the version of events that gets filtered through the editing suites, the cutting rooms, the editorializing of foreign media, and that, in the case of the US, finally makes it to their living room largely (if not entirely) sanitized, and packaged to them in two-minute sound bites by correspondents posted safely outside of Gaza and inside Israel. The coverage broadcast from Israel is heavily monitored, controlled and censored. The Israeli army found in 2006 that its panicked soldiers in Lebanon were using cell phones to call home for help; this time it made sure to inspect all of its soldiers to make sure that none takes a phone with him into Gaza. The army imposes a smothering control over the flow of information; nothing that is reported from or datelined Israel can be read at face value or taken for granted.

If you get your news from an American television network, no matter how horrible you think what’s happening in Gaza is, the reality that you are not seeing is much, much, much worse. (Perhaps that’s why the English-language Al-Jazeera channel, widely followed in the rest of the world, is unofficially banned in the US — not a single cable or satellite provider carries it).

And yet even with this imperfect coverage it must be said that people all over the world, including in the US, are protesting what they are seeing. Huge, million-person demonstrations have been held, from Melbourne to Jakarta, from Calcutta to Istanbul, and from Vienna to London, not to mention the huge popular protests in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Amman, across the length and breadth of the West Bank, and in some of the largest protests ever held in Palestinian communities inside Israel. Across the US, too, people have been protesting, holding vigils, writing letters to the editors of the newspapers demanding more balance to the warped coverage of the events that we see here, especially in papers like The New York Times. And the internet has been a major source of information for all those millions who have figured out that they will never learn what they need to learn from The New York Times or the Washington Post or ABC or CNN. Sites like Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, Alternet, Truthdig, Huffington Post, Salon and many others besides have carried extraordinarily intelligent and detailed pieces by a range of commentators whose sense of what is happening far exceeds what is made available by professional journalists in the mainstream press — including many superb pieces by Jewish Americans who give the lie, once and for all, to the absurd notion that their community is solidly behind Israel’s violence.

Indeed, it seems clear that the writing now being posted on alternative media outlets is also starting to outweigh the clumsy efforts still being churned out by America’s army of paid and unpaid cheerleaders for Israel, who have forsaken what little remained of their own humanity and blinded themselves to suffering that ought to move any rational, caring, sentient human being to tears — the Dershowitzes and Foxmans, the Orens and Boots, the Krauthammers and Peretzes, the Bards and Goldfarbs, the cynical apparatchiks of CAMERA and AIPAC and the mindless busybodies and shuffling zombies of Stand With Us, the Israel Project and the Israel on Campus Coalition — who persist with their stubborn, craven defense of the indefensible. About these misanthropes there is much to be said, most of it too unpleasant to print, so I’ll shift the burden here to those memorable closing lines of Wilfred Owen’s war poem “Insensibility:”

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

As for Israel itself: once again it has revealed its true nature to the world. It was only after the first reports came in of their own serious fatalities — soldiers caught in an ambush, though the censored news reports from Israel claim that it was all friendly fire — that the Israeli media suddenly started carrying reports wondering whether things have gone too far. “The Price of Stubbornness over Gaza Exit is Dead Soldiers,” write Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in Haaretz. “For the first time, Israeli TV broadcasts raised the question of whether it was worthwhile for the operation to continue.”

Until this point, the Israeli media — and most of the country’s liberal intelligentsia, never mind the militant right wing — had been moralistically defending the bombing, and sometimes actually cheering it on. Starting the attacks on a Saturday was a “stroke of brilliance,” the Guardian’s Seamus Milne quotes the country’s biggest selling paper Yediot Aharonot as saying; “the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed.” The daily Maariv agreed: “We left them in shock and awe.” The rational and genuinely ethical voices of Amira Hass and Gideon Levy have never seemed more isolated.

The brute fact of the matter is that, as long as their air force is killing an entirely defenseless people, the Israeli public and media do cheer them on. As soon as they start paying any kind of price — no matter how grotesquely out of proportion to the level of damage their soldiers are inflicting on unarmed and innocent people — their bloodlust quickly cools. In Gaza, the Israeli infantry won’t take a single step forward unless the ground in front of them — and everything and everyone in it, armed, unarmed, whoever and whatever they are — has been safely cleared away for them by the air or by artillery.

These are “Georgia rules,” which are not so far from the methods Russia used in its conflict last summer,” write Harel and Issacharoff in Haaretz. “The result is the killing of dozens of non-combatant Palestinians. The Gaza medical teams might not have reached all of them yet. When an Israeli force gets into an entanglement, as in Sajaiyeh last night [where three Israeli soldiers were killed], massive fire into built-up areas is initiated to cover the extraction. In other cases, a chain of explosions is initiated from a distance to set off Hamas booby-traps. It is a method that leaves a swath of destruction taking in entire streets, and does not distinguish military targets from the homes of civilians.”

I’m not sure where the “Georgia” reference comes from: the Israelis used the very same tactics in Jenin and Nablus in 2002, and in southern Lebanon in 2006 and 1982. And it would be an act of futility to point out — for the millionth time — that the Israeli method of warfare takes place in sweeping disregard for the principles of international humanitarian law, not to mention total contempt for innocent human life. This is not to mention that most of the casualties pouring into Gaza’s morgues and hospitals are the victims of the sheer indiscriminate unleashing on densely populated civilian areas of high explosive ordnance from land, sea and air that has been characteristic of Israel’s military style since at least the 1970s.

Israel’s disregard for innocent human life is not motivated only by a desire to forestall the political consequences — especially during an electoral campaign — of Israeli military casualties. It is also a clear indicator of the contempt that Israel has for Palestinian life in general. The cold, hungry, tired, desperate, and terrified men, women and children that Israel is now sweeping away by the dozen in balls of fire and showers of shrapnel are the very same people that it had already reduced to what one UN official months ago warned was “a subhuman existence,” the deliberate product of the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza for over three years, beginning in 2005, before the election of Hamas. They are the same people whose political and human rights Israel has been stifling since the occupation of 1967 — 20 years before the creation of Hamas. They are the same people who were ethnically cleansed from their land in 1948 because, as non-Jews, they were inconveniently cluttering up the land that European Zionists wanted to turn into a Jewish state, no matter what the land’s actual population had to say about it.

Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life in Gaza today is, in short, a direct extension of its disregard for Palestinian life since 1948, and what is happening in Gaza today is the continuation of what happened six decades ago. Eighty percent of the people crammed into Gaza’s hovels and shanties are refugees or the descendants of refugees that armed Zionist gangs, which eventually coalesced into the infant Israeli army, terrorized from their homes elsewhere in southwestern Palestine in 1948. They have been herded, penned, and slaughtered by a remorseless power that clearly regards them as subhuman.

If you think I’m stretching the point, I’m not. Listen to the words of Professor Arnon Sofer, the government consultant who did so much to help plan the isolation and imprisonment of Gaza, in a interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2004: “When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Sofer predicted. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure on the border is going to be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” Sofer admitted only one worry with all the killing, which will, he says, be the necessary outcome of a policy that he himself helped to invent. “The only thing that concerns me,” he says, “is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.”

Meticulously and clinically thought through even before the first rocket from Gaza claimed a life inside Israel, the slaughter in Gaza today has nothing to do with rockets or with Hamas. As Sofer himself explains, it is the purest and most distilled expression of Zionist ideology. “Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee ‘peace,’” Sofer says in that same interview; “it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.”

And that — taken right from the horse’s mouth — is what the slaughter of innocents in Gaza is fundamentally about: the people being killed today are the ones for whom there is no room in the Zionist vision of the state. They are regarded as an excess population. Not even Malthus thought that a redundant population should just be lined up and shot, or bombed into the ground. But, clearly, times have changed since 1798.

This inhuman madness will end only with the end of the violent ideology that spawned it — when those who are committed to the project of creating and maintaining a religiously and ethnically exclusivist state in what has always been a culturally and religiously heterogeneous land finally relent and accept the inevitable: that they have failed.

Saree Makdisi is professor of English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.”

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